Updated: Dec 16, 2020
Note: this post is based on a trip I took in 2014. Sadly, Yemen is very unsafe right now so DO NOT VISIT.
It was hot and sweaty on the bus from the airport to the terminal and I was the only European amongst a sea of beards, shalwar kameez and an assortment of packages that accompanied these weary travelers.
My rather rough Arabic and my light accent wasn’t helping me as I stood amongst these swarthy men, almost like a scene from Tin Tin on one of his adventures.
When I've traveled I've noticed people become uncomfortable when they are one amongst a crowd of ‘locals’ or people they see as ‘others’. Being the blondie in Arabia, I'm used to standing out. These men were a friendly bunch and asked all the usual questions:
What is your name?
Where are you going?
What are you doing in Dubai?
Where you go in Yemen?, etc.
Things started to get a little uncomfortable when they asked where I was from. My answer elicited long oohs and aahs amongst the men standing around me and they started to talk quickly amongst themselves. The atmoshphere in the bus started to shift, almost imperceptibly, but in a way that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck as they discussed my origins.
When their attention returned to me, they double checked where I was going, followed by more surprise which really puzzled me.
I asked what was going on and it was explained that they couldn’t understand what an Israeli was going to do in Yemen.
Having had a rather uncomfortable discussion with the Syrian Embassy over a sanskrit visa in my passport in 2009 which they mistook for Hebrew, I was very aware of the geopolitical sensitivities of the region. In that moment I realised the error in their understanding (and my Arabic) and enunciated very clearly Aus-tray-liya not Is-ray-liya... I also flashed my passport for good measure and the crowd broke out laughing... all returned to normal. Rule number 1 - speak very clearly.... misunderstandings can be very uncomfortable!
On our flight towards the setting sun, a voice rose up in the aircraft signalling it was time to pray.
Ahmed who sat next to me was visibly annoyed at the interruption and felt it was completely inappropriate and uncultured. As the call rang out in the cabin, I watched out the window and felt completely immersed in the sound of that man's voice. After everyone had returned to their seats, the men passed their passports forward to a few people who had the literacy skills to complete the arrival documents.
It is these simple acts of community that we have started to lose in our less communal 'modern societies'. We may sit in our superiority and tutut at the sight as we smugly note to ourselves that we have no need for this type of support; but we certainly see the consequences of our choices to lead a less community-based existence when it comes to how the West takes care of its elderly (in homes vs at home).
When I told my leadership team that I was going to Yemen, my boss outright told me I would be killed or kidnapped. I worked for a security firm with clients in Yemen and they issued me a locator beacon as a precaution. Here's a spoiler... I never needed to use it - it was put away and mostly forgotten about.
Having been to Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps I had a distorted view of risk? I had been in active combat zones, driven around in low profile vehicles with flak jackets, and even tour buses between Basrah and the old Camp Bucca near Umm Qasr in Southern Iraq; but this was something different. I had no security detail - just my guide and my backpack.
At the time I traveled the advice from the UK FCO suggested there were risks, but tourist visas were once again being issued and I took this as a sign of relative stability since they had stopped issuing them for a few years. My trip was organised by an agency and included time in Sana’a, Socotra and al Hajjarah in the mountains outside of Sana’a.
Arriving into Sana’a was relatively smooth. I was greeted by my guide, made to feel comfortable in the 4x4 and taken to the Old City where I stayed at Dawud Hotel in one of the ancient mud towers that you see in the photos of Yemen.
Words cannot describe how it felt to be in such an ancient place and to really be there. It was a truly mesmerising experience to be in this ancient room and looking out through the latticed windows to the Old City. What's even more incredible is that I had this chance before some of these ancient structures were destroyed in the ongoing conflict that continues to ravage this beautiful country.
That evening, I was given a brief on how the rest of the trip would follow, the precautions I should take, and all the relevant info about the coming days. Of course I asked about my safety, and I was assured that I was in capable hands.
Over the past 3.5 years I had been to so many places involving fixers, armoured vehicles, low profile and movement control, I felt distinctly naked in the city, and yet I also felt completely held by some other unknowable force.
Early the next morning I took a walk to the edge of the Old City and received a number of stares. My basic Arabic enabled me to exchange pleasantries, but no one hassled me or stopped me. I noticed that my discomfort was driven purely by my own thoughts and fears; not because of anything that was happening around me. When I let those thoughts pass, there was a lot of freedom in being able to walk through the streets of Sana'a at a time when most people were too afraid to be there.
The old city is everything you see in the photos, and more. It's difficult to describe the feeling of walking around a city that has been continuously inhabited for 2,500 years, and still feels like an old city. I distinctly remember a friend jokingly telling me that I'd likely be kidnapped in the Souk and he'd read about it in the news.
One of the stand-out features of the old souk was the caravan houses where the ships of the desert would unload their goods, and feed and water their camels. It's difficult to put into words the musty smells, and the visceral feeling of history that permeated these sometimes dark and musty buildings. It was easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer history of the place and feel simultaneously like you'd stepped back in time. It was a dram come true to see places that I only knew about from books.
The Souk itself was a hive of activity in the early afternoon. I had seen much of what they sold in other souks of the middle east; and this wasn't a market for buying souvenirs. As an active market for the residents of the city, it caters the daily necessities of ordinary Yemeni's, and the not so necessary supply of Qat (a stimulant-bearing leaf) that is chewed each afternoon. Although offered, I chose not to engage in Qat chewing this time... Later on I had a hair raising adventure with my Qat-chewing driver as we swerved all over the roads on our way to the al Hajjarah mountains.
Meeting The People
The local people of Sana'a reminded me of the hospitality I experienced in Syria in 2009. Everywhere I went, I was invited into stores or stopped on the street so that people could run through their usual list of questions (much like the aircraft) and then offer me the 'yelllw book'.
I received my first copy of the 'yellow book' from a young boy and his father who had invited me into their store and asked me wear the local Janbiya before posing for a photo.
The 'Yellow book' is a small guide to Islam which is given to foreigners as a gentle reminder of the basic tenets of acceptable behaviours in Yemen. At the back of the guide was an invitation to visit an Islamic Centre to learn more about the local culture. Each person who stopped me enquired if I wanted the 'yellow book' and were a little disappointed to learn that I already had one. I put this down to the guides being part of an outreach program for which men of the city may have received some sort of recognition for distributing.
Beyond the stunning architecture of the old city and the breahtaking scenery of Socotra and al Hajjarah (Manaka), it was the people that I remember.
My guide in Sana'a was a kindly and gentle soul who only wanted to take care of me and make sure that I was safe. He explained the current political situation, and made sure he took me to see the best of what was available without putting me in harm's way. Where necessary, we took tuktuks and taxis to navigate parts of the city that he wasn't comfortable for me to walk through.
While returning from the Salah Mosque a woman ran from her store speaking in rapid-fire Arabic to invite me in for tea. My guide was visibly uncomfortable at being approached in this way by a woman and motioned to me that we might want to move on. I asked him for some more information about what she was saying as her eyes beckoned us to visit from behind her shayla. We followed the woman up a narrow staircase built into the mud-brick building, arriving into a what appeared to be a natural medicine store.
For me this was a veritable disney world of herbs and concoctions and I felt both at home and transfixed by the scene in front of me. The woman returned to her place behind the reception desk, an assistant brought us tea and a Dr was mid head-massage with a local man.
It was a comic mix of bugs bunny style barber of seville set in a herbarium. The man paid no attention to me as my guide and I made awkward conversation with the Dr and the woman who were mainly interested in what I was doing and where I was from. One tea was finished, we left and my guide rolled his eyes as we walked down the stairs lamenting that in his country people should be more respectful. I, meanwhile, found the whole experience thoroughly fascinating.
The other people I met in Sana'a were truly welcoming and I have fond memories of being cared for in a way that is unique to Middle Eastern cultures. The warmth of the people in the street, the care taken by the guide who drove me around Socotra Island for a week and prepared my food and tent each day, and the sense of 'hospitality' that is so often missing in today's hard and fast 'want fries with that' attitude you so often find in large cities today.
It is, therefore, difficult for me to comprehend the misery and sense of 'otherness' Yemenis face today as their country is torn apart by a war most of them didn't choose. The locals who were willing to share their thoughts on the then minor conflict in the North pointed out that it was a small group of people agitating; but the majority of the country go about their business of living and surviving - just as we do.
It is too easy for the world at large to judge a whole nation by its problems and forget that within that nation are people who share more in common with us than we care to believe. Like us, they want to live a happy, healthy existence, raise their children and achieve their own version of actualisation. At their core, the vast majority are 'people' like you and I; and it is too easy for us to forget it when we are conditioned by a news cycle that portrays only a narrow view of the reality on the ground.
Exploring the Land
The main purpose of the trip was to see the Galapagos of the Middle East called Socotra Island. Intrepid travelers had been sharing their experiences of this remote island with travel sections city dailies and I was captivated by the endemic species of plants and the promise of a real adventure.
This expedition was meant to be with a friend but his father fell ill not long before the plans were finalised and he was unable to join the trip. This meant a week alone with a guide who could barely speak english, nature and books - it was just what I needed at the time.
Socotra is 'one of' the most captivating places I have ever visited. There is nothing to do there but immerse yourself in the natural world and while away the days walking, reading and journaling. The island lived up to its promise of taking my breath away at every corner.
Each night I slept under the stars, under a canopy or in a small hut depending on where I was and it couldn't have been more wonderful. The 5 million star hotel was my absolute favourite where I got to drift off while staring into some of the clearest skies I've ever seen on earth. On an island as remote as Socotra there are few opportunities for light pollution in the evening when you're in the middle of nowhere.
I was endlessly fascinated by the plants such as the desert rose which seemed to be positively enormous and growing almost everywhere. Each one grew according to its environment, the amount of water it received and whether it was subject to the wind. With their bronze coloured trunks and delicate pink flowers I was lucky enough to be there when many of these beautiful plants were blooming.
Nothing on the island compares to the sheer majestic weirdness of the Dragon's Blood trees. On the Dixam Plateau where we camped, my guide shared with me that many of the larger trees are more than 500 years old... it's hard to fathom a tree as old as that when you're in your mid thirties. These creatures have seen so much change on our planet and I couldn't help but stand in awe as I stared at them.
The sheer variance in landscapes on Socotra was mind-blowing. From sand dunes abutting massive escarpments to mountains covered in Dragon's Blood trees, each part of the island seemed to have its own microclimate which encouraged a finely balanced ecosystem to flourish. There were also swamps, wadi streams and waterfalls with palm groves, a enormous cave systems providing homes for bats and other creatures, rolling white dunes and massive canyons to rival any others I have seen on my travels. Socotra was nothing short of a cornucopia of natural beauty and wonder.
One of the hardest things to describe to people is the sheer scale of the things I saw on Socotra. There were few buildings, cars or even people to help give a sense of scale to how massive the mountains, escarpments and even Dragon's Blood trees. It is only by looking at the images really carefully that you're able to discern a some sense of the scale of the place.
When flying back from Socotra to Sana'a, our very nimble Felix Airways jet safely landed us at the airport after running the gauntlet of drones that circle around Sana'a. If there was one time that I felt a bit unsafe, it was hearing the announcement that the flight plan had to be adjusted because of this.
My final stop in Yemen was the al Hajjarah mountains and the town of Manakah which is a mudbrick village way up in the high mountains west of the capital. Getting there is no easy feat when your driver insists on filling his cheeks with Qat and you're forced to stop every couple of kms to hand the security personnel a passport and permit copy to enable you to continue the journey. Despite the inconvenience of the checkpoints, it was this very system that ensured my safety throughout my travels in Yemen.
Each time we stopped, my driver would hand over two sheets of paper. On the odd occasion the military personnel would ask more questions about where I was from, where we were going and take a good look at me in the back or check the luggage. Each time we were waved through without issue, if only after a brief delay. Some 4 hours later we arrived in the high mountains and I was once again greeted as a long-lost brother to a group of strangers I had never met.
The men of Manakah explained that in its heyday they received hundreds, if not thousands of tourists every week but today I was the only one. It was only the odd Asian or German visiting during the uncertain times facing the country and they welcomed every tourist they received. Like many others I had spoken to, they just wanted to live their life in peace without any issues.
Seeing the children playing on the dirt paths that connected villages was a beautiful sight and reminded me of the joy that exists in such simplicity. As the sun set over this beautiful mountain, I reflected on what had been a perspective changing trip to an incredible country that truly is the cradle of civilisation.
The Yemenis I met were a proud and humble people who have endured a lot of suffering. Many years later as I write this post in London, I can't help but wonder what has become of those souls who cared for me on my travels. We may only spend a day or an evening in the company of others, but their impact can last a lifetime - for better or worse. In this case, my memories of Yemen remain some of the most heart-warming.
Next time you hear about Yemen, I hope you'll pause for a moment and question just for a moment and reflect on what you've read here. We are given a small slice of the story. Somewhere else there is a counter-melody of people doing their best to help their fellow man and woman; and literally just trying to get along. I was lucky enough to visit when it was deemed safe enough, but it wasn't long afterwards that the country was closed once again to tourists.
It is my enduring hope that we can find ways to compromise through dialogue, acceptance and understanding.